Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hunters Point, Queens

Hunters Point is sometimes referred to as Long Island City although it is just a part of LIC, which is a much larger area. The neighborhood has long been a transportation hub. In fact, one of the defining features of the area today is the sheer number of trains that rim the boundaries. You name it, and it stops at Hunters Point: the Long Island Railroad, the BMT, IRT and IND subway lines. The current resurgence of Hunters Point as a residential area owes much to this transportation phenomenon and the wonderful waterfront views.

Tour of Hunters Point

Transportation Hub

During the railroad's heyday in the mid 1800s, when the railroads were being built across the country, passengers and goods bound for Manhattan from Long Island had to terminate and unload in Queens. There was no tunnel at this time and, therefore, no way for the long distance trains to cross the river and enter the City. The trains ended in Hunters Point and the passengers and goods were transported across the river by boat.

Commerce flourished, centered around the ferry industry that transported passengers from the LIR terminal to 34th Street in Manhattan. Inns and taverns were built to accommodate the passengers, and small industry developed to service the railroad industry. Many of the rich and famous passed through, including Theodore Roosevelt when he was headed to his home in Sagmore Hill, Long Island.

But the dirt and noise generated by the railroad industry got worse. The Hunters Point stench, as it was called by the New York Times, became infamous since the odor could not be contained and wafted over to Manhattan. The old established families began to leave. Many homes were abandoned and became rooming houses, with working families as tenants. The ethnic and religious power structure changed as the Protestant population was reduced by the establishment exodus, and the simultaneous influx of workers, who were largely Catholic, further tipped the balance. This shift in power became a source of discord.

Religious Hotbed

By the early 1900s, The New York Times reported many disputes between the Protestants and "upstart Catholics." Many of the NY Times articles centered around religion in the schools, citing instances such as "Catholic priest marches into school and takes the kids to church" and "Catholic priest demands that the Protestant version of the Lords Prayer not be read in school." At this time prayer in school was legal, hence raising the question of which versions should be read. Maybe the religious haggling was the legacy of the karma left by the "fiery" Dutch Minister, Dominie Everadus Bogardus who first purchased the land then drowned.

The Last Mayor of Long Island City

Hunters Point was incorporated into Long Island City and became the seat of government for that city and all of Queens County. The power in this area was in the hands of a popular mayor known as Battle Axe Gleason, who was infamous for taking the law into his own hands. He spent many a night in jail, with his loyal supporters cheering him on. He acquired the status of local hero when he and his followers tore down a fence erected by the railroad because it blocked the path of local residents. But he was not invincible and did lose a re-election bid because of the shadow of corruption. However, the mayor refused to leave office. He also destroyed public documents that might have shown his hand in the till,particularly in regard to the construction of PS1, a school built under the mayor's most watchful eye. He was, however, the last mayor of LIC, which then became the borough of Queens and part of the city of New York.

Between 1900 and the present, not much happened or changed in Hunters Point until recently, when the current transition into an artistic community began. It is interesting to note that P.S.1, now an experimental art center and no longer a functional school, is at the forefront of this change. Thus the site ultimately responsible for Mayor Gleason's demise is today a focal point in an exciting artistic resurgence.

The neighborhood, which is a mecca for art institutions as well as subways, is also seeing the development of residential buildings, restaurants and other amenities that serve the growing native population and visitors. The latest addition is Gantry Park and beach, accessible by water taxi. How fitting, since ferries were part of the scene back when Hunters Point first became the transportation link to Manhattan.

Tour of Hunters Point

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